by Jacob Manier, organist choirmaster, St. Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles
Hymn 596 is widely considered one of the strongest texts for social justice and national peace in our hymnal. The author, Henry Scott Holland, an Anglican priest, was founder of The Christian Social Union which, in the 1880s, was regarded as “almost alone in proclaiming the injustice of present society.” In 1909, Holland wrote on the Poor Law report, pointing to the failure of the old deterrent system and declaring that slum- dwellers were owed honor precisely because “they are poor, and weak, and helpless.”
To modern sensibilities, Holland’s 1902 text is problematic. Verse three originally read:
Crown, O God, thine own endeavor: Cleave our darkness with thy sword: Feed the faint and hungry heathen with the richness of thy Word:
Cleanse the body of this empire through the glory of the Lord.
We like to think we’ve grown since then, but in the Hymnal 1982, we’re still confronted by a text which pleads with a weaponized God to bring about national religious cleansing. And that’s the trouble with hymn 596.
Thankfully, Holland was a bit of a prophet, and furnishes a solution to our hymn troubles in his 1880 essay Faith:
“New knowledge, new experience, far from expunging the elements of faith, make ever fresh demands upon it; they constitute perpetual appeals to it to enlarge its trust, to expand its original audacity.” He goes on, “The urgency, the peril of this hour, lies, not so much in the novelty, or force, of the pressure that is brought to bear against faith, as in the behavior of faith itself under the pressure.”
Nearly 40 years after the editors of our hymnal adjusted Holland’s text for 20th- century Christians, we’ve grown in our understanding of the expansiveness – and the limits – of our Christian responsibility. New knowledge. New experience. New demands. New hymn text. Gone are notions of brutish, sword-wielding Gods leading us to Christianize whole peoples, and upon us are Archbishops and Presiding Bishops who lead us into 21st-century Christianity under the banner: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
So, as we sing this Sunday’s closing hymn, and then pledge to serve Christ in all people at the Dismissal, we might ask ourselves: